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NASA still making the case for commercial crew

Posted: November 30, 2012

NASA's top administrators, baffled by continued congressional resistance to funding the agency's commercial crew program, this week said supporters should revamp how they advocate for privatized human spaceflight.

File photo of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
After the retirement of the space shuttle, NASA is turning to the private sector to supply U.S. crew transportation to the International Space Station. Until a domestic provider becomes operational, NASA has procured astronaut seats on Russian Soyuz vehicles.

The commercial crew transportation initiative was announced by the Obama administration in February 2010, but nearly three years later, NASA's top managers are still selling the program's merits to lawmakers.

In August, NASA announced Boeing Co., SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. won agreements to receive up to $1.1 billion through May 2014 to continue designing and testing human-rated commercial rockets and spaceships. NASA expects at least one of the companies will have an operational crew transportation system by 2017.

Concerned that NASA was shortchanging other priorities, including the government-owned Space Launch System and Orion exploration programs, Congress declined to appropriate the White House's requested funding for the commercial crew program for the last two years.

The space agency is spending less than half the money it said it needed for fiscal year 2013, which began Oct. 1. Congress was unable to pass a federal budget before the last fiscal year's spending package expired, and lawmakers extended funding to NASA and other agencies at fiscal 2012 levels.

The continuing resolution runs until March 27 and extends the commercial crew program's $406 million annual budget for the first six months of fiscal 2013, affecting the rate at which the program can spend money. The Obama administration proposed giving the commercial crew program $830 million in fiscal 2013.

"We are obviously not communicating this well," said Lori Garver, NASA's deputy administrator, who said the agency has had a tough time selling commercial crew transportation and technology development funding on Capitol Hill. "I can't believe we're losing this argument."

So far, NASA expects the commercial crew milestones to remain on schedule through the timeframe of the continuing resolution, according to Candrea Thomas, an agency spokesperson.

Even if Congress passes a spending bill with additional commercial crew funding, it is unlikely the program will receive a budget near the White House's request. That is because the commercial crew budget for the first six months of fiscal 2013 was less than 50 percent of the Obama administration proposal, meaning any boost in the budget for the second half of fiscal 2013 would have to go beyond the White House request just to meet the funding level NASA anticipated.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, speaking to the NASA Advisory Council on Wednesday, said commercial transportation is "absolutely essential to the success and survival of the International Space Station. Unless we want to be dependent [on Russia] for time immemorial to get crews and cargo the station, then we have to have an American capability."

In its latest agreement with the Russian space agency, NASA is paying nearly $63 million per round-trip seat on Soyuz missions. NASA expects domestic carriers to charge less than Russia's price.

Earlier this year, lawmakers led by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., pushed NASA to select one company to continue the next phase of commercial crew development. NASA officials fought back, saying multiple companies should continue work, ensuring competition and lowering total costs.

Wolf is chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for drafting NASA's budget.

Wolf and Bolden agreed in June - after a successful test flight by SpaceX, one of the most visible commercial crew competitors - that NASA would ensure continued competition by selecting two companies for full funding awards in the next phase of the program.

Boeing and SpaceX won agreements worth $460 million and $440 million, respectively, to work on their CST-100 and Dragon capsules. Sierra Nevada was selected to continue development of the Dream Chaser lifting body spacecraft at a slower pace, receiving an award worth up to $212 million.

"In a nation that was established on free speech and public dialogue, there is no public dialogue on space and human exploration," Bolden said. "The only way to do that is out-and-out duking it out with the Congress. It's an opportunity we have to engage, and it's the closest thing we have to public dialogue. I wish we did it more in public forums."

File photo of NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver. Credit: NASA/Paul E. Alers
Despite the progress, the backlash from Congress and many aerospace veterans, including Apollo-era astronauts, on the commercial crew program does not sit well with Garver.

"We somehow have not characterized it in a way that's been able to get those types of people who absolutely should believe in what we're doing to see that it's going to allow NASA to advance that much more quickly and positively," Garver told a NASA advisory panel Monday.

Garver then launched into rebuttals of several arguments used by critics of commercial spaceflight.

"The safety issue? In view, this country trusts the private sector will all types of safety issues beyond what we're discussing here," Garver said. "Welfare to billionaires? How can our program be considered welfare to billionaires, when we don't talk about that with companies we do business with now, who don't take financial risks? Isn't that welfare?"

One feature of NASA's pacts with commercial spaceflight companies is the agreements are public-private partnerships. Each firm is expected to provide private investment to go along with government funding, and companies take on any budget overruns.

"Facts are facts, and we need to be able to communicate this," Garver said. "I don't think it is productive to have that kind of misinformation out there, when our commercial programs allow us to return the best value to the taxpayers."

Garver highlighted the commercial program's ability to ignite innovation, create jobs, and return the U.S. commercial space industry - including the launch services business - to a leadership position in a hotly competitive environment with Europe, Russia and China.

"People think spaceflight is over because the shuttle is not flying," Garver said. "It's part of this overall communications challenge that we have to let people know NASA is not over."

Garver said: "We aren't going to just keep doing the same things over and over because that's not what advances the economy and society."